How should Israel relate to Hamas? How directly should it engage with an organization whose rule over Gaza makes it a key player in any negotiations towards an end to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, but one that is defined as a "terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction" in the Trump Mideast plan, mirroring Israel’s formal stance? How should Israel’s quiet, indirect, pragmatic dialogue with Hamas be understood? Is it time for Israel to break the taboo on public contact with Hamas?
Israeli policy toward Hamas has been a focal point since the Oslo process. The last round of violence on the Israel-Gaza border in recent days – with another rocket attacks, explosive balloons and Israeli strikes – surfaced this basic dilemma once again.
During the Oslo process, Israel had a two-track policy. It conducted talks with the PLO, which had officially and publicly recognized "the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security," in the hopes of reaching a final status agreement, and at the same time Israel waged uncompromising war on Hamas, which refused to recognize both Israel and the Oslo Accords. That policy was shared by both the left-wing and right-wing Israeli governments through the 1990s. Suggestions by certain Israeli figures, among them Rabbi Menachem Froman and Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy to promote dialogue with Hamas were rejected out of hand.
However, it became increasingly obvious over the years that ignoring Hamas and excluding it from the process would be very hard given its standing in Palestinian society, especially after its 2006 election victory and takeover of the Gaza Strip.
One way of understanding Israel’s dilemma is through the concept of "peace spoilers." In the 1990s, there was a growing discussion among academics in the field of conflict analysis, about how to relate to actors, often non-state ones, who undertake concerted efforts to thwart peace processes or agreements that they view as a threat to themselves and their goals.
One of the main examples discussed in those days were Hamas and Jewish extremists, both of whom sought to foil the Oslo process. Other peace processes in the 1990s encountered a similar phenomenon. In Northern Ireland, the Real Irish Republican Army split from the IRA and carried out terror attacks in a bid to prevent a peace agreement. In South Africa, deadly violence in the early 1990s threatened to undermine attempts of reconciliation. Scholars debated how best to deal with such actors – whether to fight against them or to communicate with them and try to integrate them into the process.
Even after the split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 2007, Israel continued with its parallel policy: Security coordination and peace talks (until the 2014 collapse of negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry) vis-a-vis the PLO-led Palestinian Authority (PA) under Mahmoud Abbas, along with a blockade of Gaza and repeated rounds of fighting with Hamas, whom Israel saw as "peace spoilers" who must be fought.
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Successive Israeli governments insisted that they would not conduct any dialogue with a Palestinian unity government if it included Hamas. In October 2017, the Netanyahu government’s security cabinet reiterated this stance in light of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation attempts, announcing that Israel would engage with such a Palestinian government only if Hamas recognized Israel, stopped its terrorist activity, disarmed and severed ties with Iran.
But over the last decade, the ground started shifting, gradually. In 2011 Israel and Hamas reached an agreement on releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners; the parties also negotiated indirectly on ceasefires to end several rounds of fighting. But these contacts were a precursor to a far more dramatic and significant move.
Ironically, the most right-wing government in Israeli history, formed in 2015, which did not include representatives of centrist or left-wing parties, was the one that eventually led to a radical shift of Israel’s position. During 2018, Israel and Hamas launched indirect intensive negotiations, mediated by Egypt and UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov.
This shift has several reasons: Both parties were finally open to the idea of dialogue, after a decade of repeated and indecisive clashes, and a primed for a more pragmatic recognition of reality. But at the same time, it also stemmed from a mutual interest in managing the conflict rather than resolving it - and in weakening the PA under Abbas. The same dynamics are true today.
The Netanyahu government is not interested in fostering a peace process that would entail territorial concessions in the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state, whereas Hamas is interested in preserving its power and standing.
Netanyahu declared in March 2019 that contacts with Hamas were maintaining the split between Gaza and the PA-controlled West Bank, thus scuppering the possibility of establishing Palestinian state. A close Netanyahu campaign aide, Jonathan Urich, boasted in an April 2019 interview that his boss had "managed to achieve a split between Gaza and Judea and Samaria, and in fact crushed the vision of a Palestinian state in these two areas. Part of this achievement is linked to the Qatari money reaching Hamas each month."
This in itself constituted a turnaround in Israel’s position: for years, it had demanded that control over Gaza be restored to the PA. Looking at the Israel-PA-Hamas triangle, it appears that any real dialogue between Israel and the PA has collapsed; contacts between Hamas and the PA have reached a dead end; and only the channel between Hamas and Israel is still working.
During the 2007-2008 Annapolis process, Israel’s goal was to bolster Abbas vis-à-vis Hamas and reach a final status agreement with him, which would be expanded in its next phase to include Gaza. However, Israel is now working to preserve the split between the two Palestinian entities, and no longer seeks to create any affinity between Gaza and the PA, or to push for a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It’s worth taking a step back to see just how unthinkable (until very recently) Israel’s pivot has been, and how dramatically expedient, or pragmatic, its redefinition of an acceptable partner for dialogue has been.
If, as recently as some two years ago, the Israeli government rejected the idea of talks with a Palestinian unity government due to its affiliation with Hamas, today the Israeli government is talking to Hamas, while not conducting any diplomatic dialogue with Abbas, and even adopting an increasingly harsh tone toward him and the Palestinian Authority. The emerging message is that Israel is rewarding Hamas, which uses violent means against Israel (firing rockets and incendiary devices at Israel), and punishing the PA, which has adhered to tight security coordination with Israel.
The negotiating process between the Netanyahu government and Hamas, as well as the understandings reached, are being kept under wraps, and neither side feels compelled to report on them to its public and provide any accounting. At no point in the process did the Israeli prime minister or any other Israeli official representative face the people, their citizens and electorate, and update them on the key issues, on both sides’ positions, on the disagreements and on the agreements reached up to that point.
For both the Netanyahu government and Hamas it is political convenient, if not essential, to keep their contacts discrete – to maintain the gap between their mutually aggressive rhetoric that refuses to recognize the other side, and what is actually happening in terms of dialogue.
Canadian researcher Peter Jones has argued, in his research work on secret diplomacy, that secrecy is an essential component during initial stages of negotiations, and back channels are an effective tool at the start of that process in order to cautiously examine the feasibility of possible agreements before reporting to the public.
However, Jones warns that turning a temporary secret negotiating channel into a long-term foreign policy, hiding the policy positions and understandings between the sides, is dangerous, unethical and undemocratic. This principle, of banning secret understandings, was included in the 14 points presented by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson toward the end of World War I.
We should welcome the fact that both sides have undergone a process of maturity and moderation and realized that the solution in Gaza is diplomatic, not military. The barebones information that is shared has also prepared public opinion, to a certain extent, for measures that until recently were considered taboo by both sides – negotiations and agreements with Israel, from Hamas’ point of view, and negotiations and agreements with Hamas, from an Israeli point of view.
However, the point of the dialogue process must not be limited only to maintaining the status quo between rounds of fighting. Israel must ensure that the negotiation process is linked to a long-term solution for the Gaza Strip in concert with diplomatic dialogue with the PA, in an effort to extricate the sides from the ongoing violent circle and offer both peoples a political vision for the future.
Israel’s leadership must address the Israeli public and present it with its strategy on the Gaza issue, and with the understandings reached and commitments given within the framework of the negotiation process with Hamas. Part of that is to explain to the public if it sees the Hamas as peace spoilers or partners for negotiations. In doing so, it would promote a more mature and real public discourse on Gaza, one that does not take refuge behind old slogans and clandestine understandings.
Lior Lehrs is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the Director of the Program on Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking at Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Twitter: @LiorLehrs